PARIS — Europe’s self-appointed guardians of democracy are in high dudgeon.
Their beef: the failure by EU leaders to nominate Bavarian politician Manfred Weber or another so-called Spitzenkandidat as president of the European Commission.
Some in the European Parliament are so indignant that they are threatening to block the election next week of Ursula von der Leyen, the multilingual center-right German defense minister who emerged as EU leaders’ compromise candidate to run the European executive.
Such an action would be an immature gesture by an adolescent Parliament that seems to care more about flexing its muscles than using its brain to consider what it wants to be when it grows up.
What it wouldn’t be is a defense of democracy.
Sure, von der Leyen’s name wasn’t on the ballot. But neither was Weber’s in 27 of the 28 countries that voted in May’s election.
Europe is a hybrid democracy — a union of states and peoples. Both Parliament and the leaders of the member states have democratic legitimacy, which is why the treaty provides for the European Council to propose by qualified majority a candidate for Commission chief “taking into account” the European Parliament election results. The nominee needs an absolute majority in Parliament to be appointed.
Parliament managed to dictate the choice to the Council in 2014 by instituting the Spitzenkandidat system — a convention that the lead candidate of the group which wins the most seats in the legislature should automatically be the first choice for Commission president. It’s a system that has no legal basis in the EU treaties.
The showdown over von der Leyen is not about the pure light of democracy versus a shady backroom political stitch-up, as it has been portrayed particularly in the German media.
It’s arguably more the result of failed power grabs by fixers in the two big European “political families,” who are upset because they couldn’t ram their will through the European Council.
The real fault lies with the center-right European People’s Party, which elevated Weber, its uncharismatic floor leader with no government experience, as its Spitzenkandidat after a parody of a primary.
It was an uninspired choice, so much so that Weber was not even able to secure a majority in Parliament behind his candidacy — despite the institutional incentive to rally behind him.
Before the election, the EPP’s gray men had rejected French proposals for the lead candidates of each political group to head transnational lists, which would have given them a stronger claim to pan-European popular legitimacy. That meant Weber was only on the ballot paper in his native Germany. His name recognition outside the German-speaking world is minimal.
The EPP prevented transnational lists not for the sake of democracy but to keep power in the hands of the incumbent mainstream parties that run Parliament, and make it harder for French President Emmanuel Macron to build an EU-wide support base.
Then, after the votes were counted and it was clear that Weber had flopped, the party’s grandees ganged up with nationalist central European leaders against German Chancellor Angela Merkel to thwart the nomination of another Spitzenkandidat: Dutchman Frans Timmermans of the European Socialists, who might have secured a majority with the help of liberal, Green and even some far-left MEPs.
It was the EPP’s insistence on keeping the top Commission job, which it has held for 15 years, that led to the search for a center-right figure better qualified than Weber.
Faced with deadlock in Parliament and stalemate among the 28 EU leaders, Macron and Merkel eventually hashed out a deal with European Council President Donald Tusk on a fresh slate of nominees for the Union’s four top jobs.
Alongside von der Leyen are French IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde to head the European Central Bank, outgoing Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel to preside over the European Council and Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell to be foreign policy high representative.
Ironically, the loudest objections to this deal are coming from Germany. The country’s Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in government with von der Leyen’s Christian Democrats, are leading the chorus of disgruntled MEPs threatening to deny her parliamentary confirmation. This has everything to do with domestic politics and the desperate state of the leaderless SPD — and nothing to do with democracy in Europe.
Whatever her shortcomings as defense minister — the job from hell in a country with an aversion to all things military for historical reasons — von der Leyen is a committed, multilingual pro-European in Merkel’s centrist mold, with long experience of running sprawling ministries.
So why are so many lawmakers thinking of rebelling against her appointment? For some, the reasons are ideological — nationalists hate her European federalism, Greens find no evidence in her record of concern for climate change or the environment.
But for many, this is just about asserting the power of the Parliament to hijack the nomination process, whatever the treaty says.
Parliament was able to do that last time around because of a (backroom) deal struck between the EPP and the Socialists, the institution’s second-largest party.
When Socialist front-runner Martin Schulz came second to the EPP’s Jean-Claude Juncker, he immediately rallied behind his rival, giving national leaders little choice but to nominate the Luxembourger.
If rule one of all parliaments is to seize as much power as possible from the executive, rule two is never to let go of it once you have got it. Rule three is that if you do have to back down, make sure you grab some other power in compensation.
That may be the real agenda behind the threat to blackball von der Leyen. There are other powers that the European Parliament covets but does not have under the treaty. These include the right to initiate legislation, which lies solely with the Commission, and the right to raise taxes, which is the monopoly of national governments.
Neither of those prerogatives can be secured without amending the EU treaty. And, given the high risk of referendum defeats, there is little appetite among national governments for treaty change.
But von der Leyen could offer Parliament an olive branch by making a political commitment that the Commission will propose legislation on any policy issue within its legal competence if a majority of lawmakers request it. That would go beyond an existing treaty provision — Article 225 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, for those following along at home — that says the Commission may agree or refuse to submit the proposal requested.
Some national governments would not like it, but they have effectively asserted similar power through the Eurogroup, the informal body of finance ministers that manages the eurozone. And since they would retain a veto as co-legislators, they would be ill placed to object.
It would be a modest advance for Europe’s hybrid democracy, and a sign that by acting maturely, Parliament can extend its influence.
Click Here: France Rugby Shop